Many of us have either walked into a place of business or worked in a place where the “vibe” was off. There was something in the air and you couldn’t really put your finger on exactly what it was. The place looked good, clean, organized and up to date but there was something off. You might have even received several polite greetings the moment you walked in with what appeared to be a sincere smile. It is not until you over hear an interaction between two employees that you could say, “A-ha there it is!” That vibe, tension, or feeling is the organizations communication climate.
Communication climate can be defined as “the emotional tone of a relationship” according to Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II in the book Looking Out Looking In. Nordin et al. further defined the effect of communication climate specifically in an organization as “Communication climate of an organization may influence the atmosphere in the organization which either encourages or hinders horizontal, upward, or downward communication among the employees” in the article “Organizational Communication Climate and Conflict Management: Communications Management in an Oil and Gas Company”. To better understand the depth of communication climate we need to understand that it can range from confirming / positive / supportive too disconfirming / negative / defensive; the term used to describe the sliding scale differs from one researcher to the next, but the essence is the same. Six characteristic examples that can be found within the sliding communication climate scale are, “description-evaluation, problem orientation-control, spontaneity-strategy, empathy-neutrality, equality-superiority, and provisionalism-certainty”, according to R. Duane Ireland, Philip M. Van Auken, Phillip V. Lewis in the article “An Investigation of the Relationship Between Organization Climate and Communication Climate” and echoed by Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II as the “Gibb categories”. Each of these categories describing the how an exchange can go from supportive to defensive in a moments time.
Description versus evaluation is the difference from an open dialog to support an employees continued progress versus what could feel like a judgement of an employee’s ability to progress. Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II suggest using “I” language and an appropriate tone to help avoid an employee from becoming defensive. It is not the same to say, “I see you haven’t been quite yourself; how are you doing?” compared to “Why have you had a distant attitude lately?” The “I” language combined with the positive tone will likely afford you an open and honest response.
Problem orientation versus control can be the difference of a collaborative environment where all are able to contribute to solutions, compared to an environment where the superiors make decisions without employee input. In a control environment, organizations struggle to obtain employee buy-in with new initiatives or proposed solutions. Employees are also less likely to propose solutions or speak up about foreseen challenges. Approaching problem situations with “We” language that suggests that they will be solved as a team versus being told how to solve them (Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II ) will increase the employees receptiveness and openness of the challenges they are faced with. As an example, “I noticed the project has stalled. How can we support the progression of the project?” compared to “Why have you stalled the project?”
Spontaneity versus strategy is simply the difference between a conversation with a hidden agenda or manipulative sense, and one that is not either. When employees feel that a conversation has an agenda linked to it, they are likely to distance themselves and exercise caution with their responses. This would be another situation were an employee is less likely to be completely open about a situation or their own opinions and feelings.
Empathy versus neutrality in an organization would be the difference between employees who feel like a number and those who feel like a member. When a superior shows empathy for employee and their situation; the employee feels heard and valued. As Charles F. Beck and Elizabeth A Beck state “A published open-door policy is meaningless because the supervisor does not take the time to be available or to demonstrate a true concern.” They go on to explain, “Until the “Hi, how are you?” greeting becomes a meaningful set of words, with a supervisor sincerely desiring to hear the answer, it remains little more than a formal conversation introduction or mere cliché”. To show empathy does not mean to agree with the person but to show that you genuinely care and respect them (Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II).
Equality versus superiority is expressed not only in the words used but also in the way/tone a message is delivered. Charles F. Beck and Elizabeth A Beck provide the example of “I’m the boss here. Do it or else” versus “We’re in this together”. In communication approached with equality you will find that employees will work as a group to improve the overall function of the organization. Unfortunately, superiority in the management and supervision roles can be difficult to navigate due to the nature of the roles. Although a leader who can acknowledge and value the fact that others they work with are just as capable and knowledgeable (possibly in distinct areas); will foster a stronger well-rounded team.
Provisionalism versus certainty is the willingness to acknowledge that although they have a strong belief, there might be something that could cause them to change their belief (Ronald B Alder and Russell F Proctor II). Supervisors, who tend to believe that they are always correct, also tend to refer back to how things were done in the past. It is almost a need they have to be constantly correct. Whereas a provisional supervisor will be open to hearing different ideas and trying various solutions.
The Gibb categories help us understand the spectrum of communication climate and afford us some tools to use in our effort in obtaining the desired climate. Although, in order to truly understand the impact of communication climate in an organization; we also need to become familiar with the leader-member exchange theory. This theory is defined as “leaders and supervisors have limited amounts of personal, social and organizational resources (e.g., time, energy, role, discretion, and positional power) and, thus, distribute such resources among their subordinates selectively”, according to Bridget H Meuller and Jaesub. They further explain that because of these limited resources they do not interact with their subordinates equally. Therefore, they have varying levels of quality with different subordinates. This is referenced as higher and lower-quality LMX’s. The quality of LMX was also linked directly to employee interaction at all levels of the organizations and was seen to be imbedded within the larger organizational system. It was noted that the varying quality levels of LMX not only received different treatment but also “reinforce social perceptions about unfair treatment” (Bridget H Meuller and Jaesub Lee).
When higher and lower-quality LMX’s are combined with the Gibb categories, it becomes very apparent that drastically improving an organizational communication climate will be a challenging task. To add one more level of complexity, communication climate is as volatile as its name “climate”. There will be ups and downs depending on the situation. The key is to keep working towards the desired results, while recognizing the variables defined above, and always starting with the bases of respect towards others. Without a focus on improving the organizations communication climate you will continue to loose talented individuals, miss improvement opportunities, and struggle with employee buy-in and satisfaction.
Adler, Ronald B., and Russell F. Proctor. Looking out Looking In. Cengage Learning, 2017.
Beck, Charles F., and Elizabeth A. Beck. “The Manager’s Open Door and the Communication Climate.” Business Horizons, vol. 29, no. 1, Jan. 1986, p. 15. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1016/0007-6813(86)90080-7.
Ireland, R. Duane, and Others. “An Investigation of the Relationship between Organization Climate and Communication Climate.” Journal of Business Communication, vol. 16, no. 1, 1978, pp. 3–10.
Mueller, Bridget H, and Jaesub Lee. “Leader-Member Exchange and Organizational Communication Satisfaction in Multiple Contexts.” Journal of Business Communication, vol. 39, no. 2, 2002, pp. 220–244.
Nordin, Shahrina Md, et al. “Organizational Communication Climate and Conflict Management: Communications Management in an Oil and Gas Company.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, Elsevier, 22 Jan. 2014, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042813052269.